When Clover football players Kenshu and Tenchi Her and Preston Vang tell people they are members of the Hmong ethnic group, the common reaction is something along the lines of, “huh?”
The Hmong (pronounced “mung”) have been a people without a country for thousands of years. They settled in southern China, but moved to Laos to escape Chinese oppression around 300 years ago. During the Vietnam War, the Hmong sided with the United States, prompting backlash from communists in Cambodia and Laos. Large numbers of Hmong fled Laos to Thailand and refugee camps there.
Many Hmong left for the U.S. where they received political asylum. The Her brothers and Vang’s parents and grandparents originally came to the United States at that time, landing first in California. Eventually, the two families - which didn’t know each other previously - settled in Clover, where they’ve been explaining their culture whenever the topic surfaces ever since.
Most people assume that the Her brothers and Vang are Chinese or Japanese.
“They wouldn’t know what it was,” said Tenchi.
“You really have to explain what Hmong is,” Vang added. “You say ‘Hmong,’ and they say ‘where’s that?’”
About 286,000 Hmong live in the United States, according to the 2013 American Community Survey. Minnesota’s Twin Cities have the largest urban population of Hmong, in part because of the Lutheran Church’s role in resettling them in America, while California has the largest total population in the country. The biggest group of Hmong in the world is still the three to three and a half million that live in China.
Vang is typical of Hmong people that have family all over the country; he has relatives in Minnesota, Michigan and North Carolina. Vang’s grandfather had eight siblings, six of which made it to the United States. They try to arrange an annual reunion each year.
Those gatherings would include Hmong cuisine, an amalgamation of southeastern Asian food that would make any spicy food lover’s mouth water. The three Clover kids - who quickly clicked after first meeting in high school - mentioned Hmong sausage as a favorite.
Hmong people have been blending in for much of their culture’s tumultuous history. But the Hmong’s unique ability to adapt has put their culture in some peril. Most younger generation American Hmong don’t speak the language, and because many of their parents don’t want to speak about the terrible struggles back in Laos and Thailand, less and less is known about the culture and its history.
That was a common theme; the elders didn’t talk about certain things and Tenchi said he didn’t feel it was his place to ask. The Her brothers and Vang were more likely to pick up things from their parents, aunts and uncles and grandparents by watching. Kenshu, a sophomore defensive lineman who didn’t say a word during a 30-minute-plus interview with a Herald reporter, has apparently taken after his elders the most.
Their respect for their elders is absolute, though. Vang knows they came to the U.S. with nothing.
“It was a really hard transition, just trying to learn everything new and trying to get jobs,” he said. “You don’t speak any English and you’re just trying to grab a job and work overtime.”
The same characteristics have worn off on the younger generation of Hmong. During the Clover football team’s preseason bonding at Camp Long in Aiken, Tenchi was overwhelmingly elected by the players as one of the tri-captains.
“It was surprising,” said Her, a soft-spoken senior measured in his speech. “I didn’t think I had the ability to become captain.”
Vang, a stout junior offensive lineman, voted for his friend. He cited some of the qualities that no doubt were passed down family lines.
“He’s not a vocal leader, he just shows by example, how he makes everything crisp,” said Vang.
Three Hmong boys play for Clover, but Blue Eagles coach Chad Smith would just as soon have 50.
“It doesn’t have to be an ethnic thing,” he said. “Kids that are like Tenchi come from an unbelievable background. Their forefathers, whatever you want to say, were the same way. Whatever it is, they get it. They understand hard work and they understand dedication.”
Tenchi scored a 74-yard touchdown run against Fort Mill, and has 273 yards and two touchdowns on 34 carries. He plays regularly on defense, and acknowledged that he wouldn’t have the opportunity to do so if his family hadn’t made the wrenching decision to leave for the U.S.
Much more than his stats, it’s Her’s actions that don’t make a scorebook or a spreadsheet that are more valuable to a program that’s trying to remember how to win.
“He does everything right,” said Smith. “He’s at every single workout, he does everything as hard as he can. He’s not very vocal. But the thing is, he exhibits every characteristic that we deem important here at Clover.”
Friday’s area games
Gaffney at Northwestern
York at Clover
Rock Hill at Nation Ford
*Games start at 7:30 p.m.